woman walking in a city

Take Your First Step Towards Better Health with Walking

February 1, 2024

Our daily lives are often spent sitting and working at computers for hours on end, and we're starting to see the consequences of that lifestyle on our health. According to the World Health Organization estimates, nearly 500 million people will develop obesity, heart disease, and diabetes this decade due in part to inactivity, and they will miss out on the joys of feeling stronger and healthier with greater mobility in older age. So what's the solution? To start, go take a walk.

The Amazing Health Benefits of Taking a Walk

Walking is a part of our evolution, history, and experience, and it also gives us numerous health benefits and advantages. And it does not cost anything to go for a walk. Many people are not aware of the many health benefits they can receive by taking a walk, and numerous studies have been researching these benefits, including: 

  • Increased blood flow: Walking helps to strengthen the heart and improve blood flow, which can lower the risk of heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular conditions. Better blood flow and circulation are essential for muscles, limbs, and organs and a healthier vascular and cardiovascular system overall. It also helps regulate blood pressure and may lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. 
  • Mood boosting: Walking can help reduce anxiety and depression, relieve stress, help with negative emotions, and improve learning and memory. Neurotransmitters get released during a walk, which helps to produce better moods and reduces pain.
  • Improved sleep quality: Walking can help enable faster and deeper sleep and may stimulate melatonin production, which is critical for sleep regulation.
  • Regulated blood sugar levels: Walking can lower and regulate blood glucose, which can help lower type 2 diabetes risk.
  • Reduced risk of dementia: Some studies suggest that walking helps to lower the risk of dementia with as little as 3,800 every day to receive some dementia benefits.
  • Longevity: Numerous studies suggest a correlation between walking and lower mortality risk.
  • Better sleep: Taking an additional 2,000 each day seems to improve the length and quality of sleep. 
  • Stronger bones: Taking a brisk walk for at least 30 minutes a day, as little as three days a week, may help improve bone density and prevent osteoporosis.

Replace Your Coffee Break with a “Movement Break”

Dragging a little bit in the afternoon after lunch? Having trouble concentrating after breakfast? It may not be your first instinct, but walking right after eating can aid digestion. Walking after a meal stimulates and speeds up digestion, which can help prevent bloating, indigestion, and constipation. It may also lower blood sugar levels, burn calories, boost metabolism, and help lose weight.

Walking offers numerous benefits, no matter when you choose to do it. Morning walks can wake up the digestive system, midday walks can help with the afternoon-tired slump, and after-dinner walks are great for helping to relieve stress and unwind after a long day and digest dinner. However, exercise physiologist researchers at Columbia University found something interesting: just five minutes of walking every half hour—throughout the workday—can offset some of the most harmful effects of prolonged sitting.

They're called “movement breaks”—a five-minute stroll every 30 minutes, and the effect is significant. "What we know now is that for optimal health, you need to move regularly at work, in addition to a daily exercise routine," says Keith Diaz, PhD, associate professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. "While that may sound impractical, our findings show that even small amounts of walking spread through the workday can significantly lower your risk of heart disease and other chronic illnesses."

Dr. Diaz led a laboratory study that found that the optimal amount of movement was five minutes of walking every 30 minutes. This was the only amount that significantly lowered blood sugar and blood pressure. This walking regimen dramatically affected how the participants responded to large meals, reducing blood sugar spikes after eating by 58% compared with sitting all day.

They also found these movement breaks improved mental health, too. Participants were in a better mood on days when they took movement breaks, reporting more positive emotions and fewer negative feelings. They also felt more energized, reporting an average 25% reduction in fatigue.

"The effects on mood and fatigue are important," Diaz says. "People tend to repeat behaviors that make them feel good and enjoyable."

Studying Walking in the Real World

In a new study, Dr. Diaz and his team have been testing movement breaks in people’s everyday lives. They found that movement breaks didn't hurt job performance either. Participants reported feeling more engaged in their work and showed slight improvements in work quantity and quality on days when they took movement breaks.

But making time for frequent breaks is hard. Many participants struggled to take movement breaks from their daily routines every half an hour. Only 50% reported being able to take movement breaks that often. The commonly cited barriers were:

  • Pressure to be productive at work.
  • Feeling too busy to take a break.
  • Concerns about disrupting workplace cultural norms.

The hope is to develop real-world solutions to encourage a better approach to work and physical well-being, challenge the idea of prolonged sitting as the norm, and replace it with a new norm: you are how often you walk. 

References

Keith Diaz, PhD, is the Florence Irving Associate Professor of Behavioral Medicine in the Department of Medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and director of the Exercise Testing Laboratory in the Center for Behavioral Cardiovascular Health. Keith Diaz is a certified exercise physiologist, an associate professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, and the director of the Exercise Testing Laboratory at Columbia's Center.